Published  30/01/2006

Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary

Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary

National Portrait Gallery, London
20 October 2005 – 29 January 2006

Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary explores self-portraits over 500 years. It includes 56 self-portraits in oil by 56 artists

Vincent van Gogh. Self-portrait with Felt Hat, 1888. Copyright: © Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

The historic development is mapped in terms of the artists' perceptions of themselves as well as the development in naturalism through the use of oil paint, invented in the 15th century. The paintings assembled include some very fine and valuable works on loan from major collections around the world. Seven paintings, for example, have come from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which houses the finest self-portrait collection in the world; started by the Medici family, it has continued in recent times to collect fine and original works. Other important loans have been negotiated from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, The National Gallery of Art in Washington, The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Within Britain, works have come from the Royal Collection, The National Gallery in London, The Tate, and English Heritage. Sponsored by Channel 4, 'Self-Portrait' is jointly curated by the National Gallery (Joanna Woodall) and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney (Anthony Bond). As the curators point out, 'The exhibition draws attention to the figure of the painter as a distinctive member of society, worthy of representation and considered to be somehow present in the works that he or she makes. As well as demonstrating the inventiveness, wit and skill of individual artists, the exhibition reveals themes and continuities that emerge from a long view. These include various uses of the mirror and the playing of various roles by the artist'.

It was Michelangelo who coined the adage that 'every painter paints himself' - although this was in contrast to his view that a human form had to be perfected by art: 'Painting bore transparent witness to the artist's personal and quasi-divine capacity to create ideal faces and bodies that expressed the vital, enduring character of the subject. In the justification of a self-generating, self-sustaining individual, a direct, personal relationship with an omnipotent God was preferred to imitation of divine creation manifest in fertile Nature. In this view, naturalistic self-portraiture as a means of figuring artistic creativity is a contradiction in terms'.1

Issues that pertain to portraiture continue to exert influence over artists when they turn to themselves for subject matter. Renaissance self-portraits, like all portraits of the age, presented the sitter/subject in noble attire. However, self-portraits always assume an insight into the artist, beyond physical likeness.

The penetrating gaze of self-portraiture, often emanating from a single eye situated at the core of the work, can be understood as a metaphor for the artist's creative power. Historically, self-portraiture has spoken of the artist's claims to virtue, a word derived from the Latin vir (man) and originally connoting manliness, manhood, strength, vigour, courage and excellence. This enduring quality, assumed to link Man with God, justified fame, commemoration and a noble title in the social world, and promised immortality in heaven. It distinguished named, honourable subjects worthy of permanent representation from the anonymous, transient, ignoble multitude.2

However physical the actual process of making art was, the Renaissance self-portrait elevated the artist to well-dressed gentleman or lady. Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532-1625) in the mid-16th century presents herself as a hands-on artist, surrounded by the paraphernalia of the studio: easel, palette and brushes. Self-portraits by William Hogarth (1697-1764) are intimate, intense works, where the artist reveals the relationship, not only with a finished work (with its various connotations) but also with the process of painting, the creative act.

Self-portraiture came about for many artists, not for intentional psychological insight or expression of ego, but for the practicality of not requiring a model. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) whose drawings formed the subject of a remarkable exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, produced scores of self-portraits. Many were made when he was too poor to afford to pay models. Subsequently, they became most compelling and intriguing examples of the artist's principal preoccupations, both in technical and emotional terms.

Van Gogh's self-portraits (like Rembrandt's before him) hide private concerns as often as they mirror them: his face a painted mask, pierced by red-rimmed, green-flecked eyes. The vibrant 'halo' of energy pulsing around him betokens his persistent faith in the exceptional destiny of artists and his conviction that a portrait can penetrate the soul where the camera cannot reach. He said he wanted to give his portraits 'that something of the eternal, which the halo used to symbolise'.3

The young Rembrandt (1606-69) used his own face to record a range of emotional states. Staggeringly, he made over 70 self-portraits. His well-known earth palette is used with supreme skill. Drawing on the achievements of Raphael and Titian, Rembrandt fashioned his own image with great care. 'Rembrandt the self-portrait becomes a performative space where the self is consciously created through reflection of and on another'.4 Self-portraiture was ideal for artists wishing to create a mythological persona or mask. Essentially a fantastical creation, the artist could dramatise aspects of character that could not be respectably expressed outside the studio.

Hogarth used an apparently modest self-portrait as a stage on which to present his work, The Analysis of Beauty (1753). 'The picture is, in fact, a work of high artifice in which the elements of painting - artist, palette, canvas - are represented in the manner best calculated to display them to the viewer. The proportions of the composition are planned according to mathematical rules and the sinuous curve of the chair arm is reminiscent of the serpentine line advocated in The Analysis of Beauty. Even the priority given to red and white on the palette seems to allude to Hogarth's aesthetic principles.'5

Women artists were often forced to use their own faces when the logistics or social ramifications of obtaining a commission clashed with appropriate protocol for respectable women. Certain classical concepts of creativity cast man as inventor and maker, and woman as nurturer and domestic. In the Renaissance, it was practically inconceivable that women should become artists:

Aristotle's account of sexual reproduction, in which the man was regarded as the sole efficient cause, was a paradigm for the creative process. It was believed that as inert matter, woman lacked an inherent capacity to generate form in life and in art. If a woman did enter the realm of painting, female portraiture was considered an appropriate genre, as it was domestic in scale, compatible with a life of feminine refinement and virtue and regarded by some as an act of mindless reproduction.6

This is not the first exhibition at the National Gallery that addresses issues pertaining to female self-portraits, including a quarter of the works by women; 'Mirror, Mirror: Self-Portraits by Women Artists' was presented in 2001-02. In the catalogue, Whitney Chadwick wrote:

No single model of self-portraiture can stand for the experiences of women generally, or fully express the rich interplay that exists between the examination of the reflected image, and the exploration of the social dimensions of lived experience, but self-representation remains critical to self-understanding and it plays a particularly important role in women's creative lives.7

To resolve the apparent contradiction in being both a woman and an artist, women artists have often turned to self-portraiture to exemplify their skills and advertise their talent. Self-representation has been absolutely central to the work of artists as diverse and historically separated as Sofonisba Anguissola and Frida Kahlo (1907-54). In Anguissola's beautiful painting, 'Self-Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel' (1556), she is dressed discreetly in black with modest lace collar and cuffs but no jewellery. Her hairstyle is simple and her demeanour modest. In this work she presents herself in the act of painting a work normally outside female constraints, the legend of St Luke the Evangelist, both as subject and object, author and model. 'Balancing social expectations, humanist wit and artistic skill, this painting is simultaneously a discreet portrait of a virtuous noblewoman and a fundamental challenge to the contemporary belief that women lacked an inherent capacity to create'.8

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) was one of the first women artists in Europe to paint large-scale narrative scenes rather than limit herself to portraiture. She is represented in this exhibition by 'Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting' (1638-39). As La Pittura, the female personification of painting, she adhered to an established iconography (cf. Vasari) by wearing 'garments of changing colours, a golden chain with a pendant mask ... and unruly locks of hair symbolising the divine frenzy of the artistic temperament'.9 This is a physical, energetic figure: her sleeves are up to reveal strong arms, and the focus is on the hand, as opposed to a spiritual, feminine gaze.

The rest of the exhibition reads like a role call of pivotal characters from the history of art, however, there are, inevitably, notable gaps and absences. Represented are: Gustave Courbet, (1819-77), Edgar Degas, (1834-1917), Paul Cézanne, (1839-1906), Vincent Van Gogh, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), André Derain (1880-1954), Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Lucian Freud (b.1922), Francis Bacon (1909-92), Andy Warhol (1928-87), Gerhard Richter (b.1932) and Chuck Close (b.1940). Of the more recent women artists, Suzanne Valadon, Frida Kahlo, Marlene Dumas (b.1953) and Jenny Saville (b.1970) are represented.

Francis Bacon. Self-portrait. Copyright: © Estate of Francis Bacon 2005. All rights reserved, DACS. Photo © CNAC/MNAM Dist. RMN/Philippe Migeat.

Beyond the exhibition, in terms of press coverage, the nine images available have focused attention on a narrow slice of the works on show, and, in certain instances, this is disappointing. The Leon Kossoff, 'Self-Portrait with Christchurch' (1989), for example, is masterly but not available, although much reproduced is Suzanne Valadon's 'The Blue Room' (1923), and deservedly so. Breaking convention on numerous levels (she was the illegitimate daughter of a domestic labourer who became a well-known model of artists in Montmartre in the 1880s), she was independent, intelligent and forceful. 'Dissatisfied with the passive role of model, Valadon was determined to be an artist, learning her craft by observing male artists at work in the studios where she posed'.10

Combining various roles in her own life: model, painter, a mother at 18 (of an illegitimate son, Maurice Utrillo), her marvellous self-portrait is theatrical and a challenge to Manet's 'Olympia' (1865), painted in the tradition of reclining nude from Ingres to Matisse. Valadon exhibited in the 1894 Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where Degas bought some of her drawings. Her inclusion in this exhibition was remarkable, for not only was she a woman, but she had no formal training; at that time no respectable bourgeois woman painted the female nude. In 'The Blue Room', Valadon depicts herself as independent, with decoratively placed books on the bed – art over marriage – and sporting not typical feminine attire but stripy trousers and a cigarette: 'Valadon shows herself to be interested in a decorative aesthetic but definitely in a decorative femininity'.11

Self-portraiture has been addressed (and reviewed on the Studio International website here) in a number of exhibitions during the past year: Frida Kahlo at Tate Modern, Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol at the National Galleries of Scotland. All have explored issues of self, gender politics, and the creative process. Frida Kahlo is certainly one of the most important women artists of the 20th century in terms of the force her paintings have created for feminist causes. Kahlo's painting confronted the previously taboo subjects of childbirth, female subjugation and the process of transformation from victim to survivor using revolutionary politics and sexual prowess. In 'Mirror, Mirror, Self-Portraits by Women', Frances Borzello pointed out:

The feminist revolution gave women permission to value their own lives, feelings and ideas as highly as men did theirs, and though the subjects often caused outrage, particularly when taboo subjects such as menstruation appeared in women's works, they were impossible to ignore. The new subject matter, the artistic arm of the feminist slogan that the personal is the political, has led to the most exciting developments in self-portraiture today: the extended self-portrait, an elaborate idea expressed through the self.12

A theatrical use of costume played an important part in Kahlo's images of self, referring to issues beyond her own experience. Kahlo dressed as a man to draw attention to issues of gender. She also wore costumes that conveyed cultural statements, such as the Mexican Tehuana costume, and flowers in her hair. She extended her imagery into the use of Mexican folk art that represented aspects of death and prayers for healing or relief from suffering.

In Andy Warhol's self-portraits there is an ambiguity, 'in whether they are, in fact, accurate representations of the real Andrew Warhola, or simply a means of deception – an act in pursuit of privacy. [His self-portraits] project both a vacancy and an allure, but essentially a superficiality that appears to betray no clear feeling ... Warhol was aware of the absurdity of celebrity, of Hollywood ... proven by his own place in it. He was both the prima donna and Pierrot of Pop Art, tragic-comic in essence. Only through his ability to ridicule the art world ... could he gain liberation from the masquerade in which he was trapped. Only by acting like a clown could he be an artist'.13 In 'Self-Portrait (Strangulation)' (1978), Warhol connect images of self with images of mortality, addressed through his dramatic traffic accident and electric chair images, that portray the darker side of American society.

The range of artists in 'Self-Portraits: Renaissance to Contemporary' is necessarily incomplete; indeed, a comprehensive study of self-portraiture is probably impossible. It is a curious fact that after an exhibition such as this, one continues to have a dialogue with a number of the artists involved. There is an intimate directness about all self-portraits, even those where the gaze has been averted. It is an extension of meeting a group of extremely interesting people at a gathering, having been told quite a bit about them in advance, though a small number are not much known and possibly remain unnoticed against the line-up of celebrities. It is not about being a voyeur, but engaging in extremely fascinating conversations with many, and wanting to continue the dialogue once the party is over.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Woodall J. Every Painter Paints Himself: Self-Portraiture and Creativity. In: Self-Portraits: Renaissance to Contemporary. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2005: 17.
2. Bond A, Woodall J. Preface. In: Ibid: 11.
3. Prunter U. Catalogue entry for Vincent Van Gogh. Ibid: 152.
4. Silvester F, Woodall J. Catalogue entry for Rembrandt. Ibid: 114.
5. Emerson E, Woodall J. Catalogue entry for William Hogarth. Ibid: 131.
6. French G, Woodall J. Catalogue entry for Sofonisba Anguissola. Ibid: 91.
7. Chadwick W. 'How do I look?' In: Mirror, Mirror, Self-Portraits by Women Artists. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2005: 21.
8. French G. Woodhall J. Catalogue entry on Sofonisba Anguissola. Op. cit.: 91.
9. Carr S, Woodall J. Catalogue entry on Artemisia Gentileschi. Ibid: 110.
10. Prunter U. Catalogue entry for Suzanne Valadon. Ibid: 164.
11. Ibid: 164.
12. Borzello F. Behind the Image. In: Mirror, Mirror, Self-Portraits by Women Artists. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2005: 31.
13. Spens C. Andy Warhol Self-Portraits (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 12 February-2 May 2005). Studio International, 2005 (last accessed 26/1/06)

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